‘Storm of lies’: The state of fake news in Europe

Europe is in a state of high alert over the rise of fake news and sites that incite hate online. Countries like France are no strangers to the problem, with media experts saying it has been growing exponentially since the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. But, with national elections set for Germany and France, Spain, Italy, Austria and The Netherlands, next year, the spread of false or misleading information via websites and social media is escalating, and the tension is palpable.

“With the elections coming in May, we are all bracing for the storm of lies,” said Kurt Novack, vp and creative director at Leo Burnett in France. “There is a lot of paranoia here as we lead up to the elections. We’re waiting for the bullshit storm like it happened in the U.K. and U.S. Everyone has their antennas up.”

Fake news comes in a bunch of different forms, from websites that manipulate facts to those that conjure false information from thin air to images and videos taken completely out of context.

“On the one side, there are the fake websites or those sites that thrive on fake news, and on the other side, there is an army of social media activists, most of which are on the alt-right, feeding fake news, images or events over the internet and platforms like Twitter and Facebook,” said Sened Dhab, head of social at French digital agency Darewin. Ensuring clients aren’t dragged into the fray is an hourly battle, he added.

Mainstream media outlets aren’t taking it lying down, with several publishers including Le Monde working tirelessly to reduce the spreading of false and misleading information. Meanwhile yesterday the chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Thomas Oppermann, called for a new law that would require companies like Facebook to set up an office in the country that would deal with fake news and hate speech at all hours of the day and night.

Advertisers take a stand
But it’s how these kinds of sites make money, which has caused the latest furor, particularly in Germany. A good many sites, which either publish totally fake news or skew the facts to distort the truth, are able to make money thanks to programmatic advertising. And due to the automated way in which programmatic ads are traded, often advertisers aren’t aware their ads are appearing on such sites. This is a problem that’s been called out in the U.S., with major brands like Kellogg’s pulling their ads from so-called “alt-right” sites like Breitbart, which has regularly published articles that stoke nationalist, racist and anti-Semitic sentiments.

Breitbart has launched a lean operation in London, with a page edited by U.K. Independence Party politician Raheem Kassam. Currently, the site has just under 700,000 U.K. monthly visitors, according to comScore. It doesn’t yet meet minimum reporting standards for comScore in France and Germany, but that could soon change. The site is eyeing an expansion into both France and Germany.

And yet, although it seems the appetite for alt-right content sites is strong currently in both countries, Breitbart may get a frostier welcome than anticipated, at least from advertisers. Two weeks ago, Germany drew global attention when major advertisers BMW and Deutsche Telekom started blocking ads from appearing on Breitbart.

“Deutsche Telekom stands for values such as tolerance and openness, and we do not condone any discriminatory acts or comments. Companies can and must be able to decide for themselves where they advertise. This does not represent an infringement of freedom of speech in any way,” said a Deutsche Telekom spokesperson.

German tourism and leisure brand REWE was quick to follow suit and has since withdrawn its ads from Breitbart after being alerted to the fact they were appearing there on social media. In the U.K., online supermarket Ocado, among other brands, has in the last few weeks tightened its ad-targeting parameters so its ads no longer appear on Breitbart.

Raising awareness 
And yet, taking a strong stance against such sites, can have severe consequences. Around the same time that BMW and Deutsche Telekom openly blocked their ads on Breitbart, the hashtag KeinGeldFürRechts — translated as “No Money For Right” — started trending on Twitter. The purpose of the hashtag, according to its author Gerald Hensel, a strategy director at major German advertising firm Scholz and Friends, was not to call for a boycott of such sites but to raise awareness among advertisers that they’re inadvertently funding them. He published a list of sites he deemed to be fake-news sites. (Breitbart was on the list.)

“There is a fundamental flaw in how these bidding mechanisms underpinning automated banner advertising work, which is that brands don’t control where their banners appear anymore,” said Hensel. “And these are major budgets we’re talking about.”

The week after the initial hashtag went viral, Hensel received a wave of death threats, targeted at both him and his employer. He has since resigned from his position at the agency due to the speed at which the backlash escalated. “It’s important to understand it was not meant as a boycott. It was purely intended as a way to raise awareness among marketing and media departments. No one has ever asked the question here, does programmatic advertising put others in charge of your brand?” he said.

This is partly due to the fact programmatic advertising has been slower to take root in Germany compared to the U.K. and U.S. markets. Hensel said that, in general, when it comes to digital adoption, Germany is around three to four years behind the U.K. and six behind the U.S. That’s meant that marketers aren’t at home with the underlying mechanics of programmatic advertising.

Others also believe strongly that brands should take a stand and find ways to cut through the spread of misinformation with real fact-based creative. “Brands should take a stand,” said Novack. “There are a lot of people out there looking for things that resonate with them and the brands they come into contact with. And as advertisers, we have a responsibility to not dupe people.”

“We do not yet match the U.S. in the scale of fake news, but we are heading that way,” said Saumel Laurent, head of Le Monde’s fact-checking unit Les Décodeurs. “A right-wing magazine recently published a cover story saying media is all lies. That spreads the idea that the media is all made up of liberals and are all lying. If you continue to push this idea that all media is lying, you open the way more for fake news. Facts become secondary.”

Image: courtesy of Counterpoint.com. 


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